Alice Notley was born in Arizona in 1945, and grew up in Needles, California. One of her first jobs was transcribing broadcasts for Radio Free Europe: the work influenced her early poems, which incorporate verbatim phrases from the street and the news – a literalisation of John Stuart Mill’s claim that poetry is eloquence overheard. Transcription was a pragmatic technique, and a modest one. ‘I was in a state of fascination with the voices of others,’ Notley recalls. ‘I thought as well I probably didn’t have so much to say on my own … I thought I was not of much interest, and possibly somewhat voiceless.’
Time has proved her far from voiceless. Since 1971, Notley has published 45 books of poetry. Fonograf Editions has now reissued her first four books in a volume called Early Works, which also includes uncollected poems written in New York, London and Wivenhoe, Essex, where she lived for a year in the early 1970s. The volume shows Notley feeling her way past the dominant aesthetics of her period – she was a key figure in the downtown New York poetry scene before moving to Paris in 1992 – and discovering a distinct, feminist voice. The poems insist that a woman of honour should be prepared to die for ‘the right to frivolity’. Notley is ‘a girl Samson in a pink/prom dress’, ready to pull down the temples of the avant-garde.
Many of the poems in Early Works have a chatty, diurnal music that can also be heard in the work of Frank O’Hara or John Ashbery. Ashbery’s notion of the poem as ‘the chronicle of the creative act that produces it’ is a good description of Notley’s shapely, improvisatory poetics – full of changing weather, changing clothes, the impressions of the immediate and ‘the great cosmetic/Strangeness of the normal deep person’. But Notley rejects any limiting affiliations. Where there are similarities of style, she claims them for her own: ‘The whole damn thing all of it’s mine the New York School the Paris School/Mine who is speaking the Damascus School if you choose it’s/The bloody female sex the alphabet.’
Notley is keen to emphasise that she has made her own way. She was, she insists, ‘the first person on earth’ to write a poem about her children. ‘In the anthologies, it looks like there were these others doing it. But they weren’t doing what I was doing.’ The novelty of her subject was matched by her constantly reinvented prosody. She enlists a range of formal strategies, using punctuation like musical new notation. Quotation marks, extra spaces, ellipses, underlining and dense parataxis shape the rhythms of her verse. The poems spread luxuriously over the page. If you think she’s just arrived, you’re wrong: ‘I was always already here!’, in a ‘sexy brocade cheong-sam/and my enormous prick & balls/showing through dress!’
Notley had two sons with her first husband, Ted Berrigan, and her early poems are full of children’s voices. In ‘January’, one asks: ‘Mommy what’s this fork doing?/What?/It’s being Donald Duck.’ Domestic conversation blends into a kind of surrealism whose hectic music mimics the rhythms of family life. Voices interweave. ‘Edmund. Edmund. Edmund. Maaah. Lodle lodle lodle.’ Many of the poems reflect on the ‘radical bodily change’ of pregnancy. Notley writes about sex and postpartum depression, boredom and the ‘constant ordinary/Madness blindness and astonishment of heart’ that constitute child-rearing. In ‘Three Strolls’, her baby son ‘stares & stares at the/maroon cushion’, swoons at its ‘myriad space & more myriad maroon’ as ‘I swoon at him/who’s also it.’ Elsewhere, Notley declares: ‘I’m a two/now three irrevocably/ I’m wife I’m mother I’m/myself and him and I’m myself and him and him/But isn’t it only I in the real/whole long universe?’ Like the baby experiencing his oneness with the cushion, attending to the child leads to new perception. Though we shouldn’t read them as straightforwardly autobiographical, Notley’s early poems are littered with specifics: names, dates, recollections. She is frank about the frustrations of caring for her two sons, and for Ted, who contracted hepatitis as a young man. ‘Three Postpartum Exercises’ begins: ‘Do you mean your response to pain is rage?/yes/and also hatred.’
Notley’s father died in 1975; Ted in 1983; her beloved stepdaughter, Kate, in 1987; and her brother the following year. Beginning with a Stain (1987) was written in Kate’s memory and represented ‘my first attempt at something epic in scale … being devastated by her death, I felt close to large dangerous powers.’ Notley’s grief sharpened her ventriloquism. ‘Good poets open themselves to all the voices in the air,’ she said in an interview in 2015. ‘My job has become to interpret the nature of the cosmos as it is presented to me by these voices.’ Her later work has repeatedly opened itself to the dead. In Songs and Stories of the Ghouls (2005), she meditates on histories of genocide through the story of the destruction of Carthage. The Trail of Tears – the displacement of Native American tribes from their homelands in the 1830s and 1840s – is a preoccupation of Alma or The Dead Women (2006), converging with 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as her grief for her second husband, the British poet Douglas Oliver, who died in 2000.
Notley’s brother, Al, who fought in Vietnam and suffered from PTSD, eventually succumbing to drug addiction, is an insistent presence in her work. Poems such as ‘White Phosphorus’ (1988), though written some years later, resound with atrocities witnessed and committed:
‘And when he came back’ ‘from Nam’ ‘at first’ ‘he wanted’ ‘to go back’
‘back there, was it where’ ‘he belonged now? war?’ ‘He wanted’
‘to go back’ ‘into the bush’ ‘where I belonged’ ‘And then later’
‘that’s exactly’ ‘where he was, in his head’ ‘years later, he was back there’
‘in his head’ ‘where everything’ ‘everthing’ ‘had happened.’ ‘He had
a family’ ‘but he’d’ ‘fought families’ ‘He had a family’ ‘he’d been
made to’ ‘fight families’ ‘How can we’ ‘compete’ ‘with that?’ ‘Pierced
their physical’ ‘centres’ ‘pierced’ ‘Is that’ ‘the only’ ‘reality?’
‘How can we compete with’ ‘that?’ ‘How can we’ ‘have him’ ‘back?’
Unlike earlier poems, where speech is sometimes marked but more often distributed across the page, the dense stanzas of ‘White Phosphorus’ are interrupted by flurries of quotation marks, so that even whole sentences become fragmented, the rhythm jagged and inflected, throwing doubt – or derision – on words and phrases, rendering them painfully euphemistic.
Notley returned to Al’s death in Désamère (1995), which also deals with the destruction of climate change, and Benediction (2015), where the figure of Iphigenia speaks for the women on the margins of war: ‘We were being used, mangled, by the forces which produce epic, and we had no say in the matter, never had, and worse had no story ourselves.’ Notley has long been preoccupied by the idea of writing an epic in a woman’s voice. In an essay called ‘Homer’s Art’ (1990), she speculates that it might be possible for a woman to recover ‘some sense of what mind was like before Homer, before the world went haywire & women were denied participation in the design & making of it.’ She first achieved something resembling this in The Descent of Alette (1992). The poem is based on the Sumerian Descent of Inanna, and depicts a heroic quest to find the First Woman and a struggle against a tyrant. Notley described Inanna as an ‘epic without action’: rather than focusing on martial heroism, ‘Inanna is purely interested in finding out what death is. It’s an inquisition through experience.’
Katabasis, or descent into the underworld, is a recurring trope in her poems. The Speak Angel Series, Notley’s latest work, is her ‘epic of the dead’: a collection of six books, written between 2013 and 2015, and published as one volume. ‘I am, at this point, an epic poet – I am like Virgil,’ she announced in a recent interview. ‘I am the one reshaping the myth and defining the world. I am international, interplanetary if you will.’ Across the series, she converses with Ebola victims, Syrian refugees, the murdered aid worker Kayla Mueller, those massacred at the Bataclan nightclub and those who shot them, the last speaker of the Ter Sami language and the restless dead. This bewildering cast of characters assembles in her apartment, speaking sometimes as individuals and sometimes as an anonymous collective. ‘This is my life now not a dream It’s as real as this city of Paris.’ Literally? Yes:
You can put the universe and all the souls that exist in a cigar box
It’s all in my two-room apartment everyone seems to need me
Not for a specialised reason but because I open out to them
To explain it or try to is painful Do I believe it
Yes afraid I do How literally Are you literal my
Reader I mean not to me But you’re there aren’t you
They’re perhaps more real than you when they cry out
And I just let them we’re compressed on my old same bed
After all, is it any stranger to think that the poem addresses an absent reader than that it converses with the dead?
In the first book of Speak Angel, ‘The House Gone’, Notley introduces the speaker, ‘Alice’, as the ‘leader’ of the dead. ‘Leader’ has worrying connotations, and Alice confirms our fears with some cultish promises. In these ‘days of destruction’, she says, she will ‘lead you from my dead house my desert my/Basin of origin I do this for I say you the people have become stupefied.’ The exodus takes the dead through cosmic landscapes reminiscent of Blake’s prophetic books. Sometimes we are in the Mojave desert, where Notley grew up: the Blythe Intaglios are here, as well as the Topock Maze, and glyphs found in a sacred gully near the Notley family home. Alice sees ‘faces everywhere faces of souls of the matter of death/Faces of dead geology of nebulae of my beloved rocks’. She is a crucified Christ, ‘your I-know-no-other-term Saviour.’ ‘Stigmatised’ with blood on her forehead, she transmutes the ‘X’ of rudimentary inscription into the ‘X’ of the Cross.
Speak Angel incorporates the voices of Notley’s brother and father as well as a host of sometimes embarrassingly undifferentiated victims, including ‘dead Africans’. Michael Brown, the teenager who was killed by police in Ferguson in 2014, recollects his last moments, and protests against the strangers who invoke his memory:
Michael Brown cries out all the live who name me hurt me
I have just tran- scribed your cry and thus named you I say
But I want you he says to tell them I am not for them to name a-
Gain The dead aren’t dead and the live are ig- norant asses!
There is something a little grotesque about Brown’s deployment in the poem. Notley takes ownership of him: ‘In our epic I exhort people not to name/Michael unless you love him For I do.’ She may love Brown, but he is made to lend his voice to the speaker’s mental fight between Consciousness and Unconsciousness, rather than speaking to anything as ordinary as racism and police brutality. ‘Oh sides I/Don’t do them,’ Alice says, though sometimes you wish she would.
The speaker describes herself as locked ‘in an eternal/cycle’ of healing the dead. Whatever their earthly deeds, they are absorbed into the redemptive pool of Notley’s compassion. ‘As I did with my brother take on your mind-wounds your flames of ob-/Sessive guilt your resentments your deadly urges your/Having been mocked your screams become a quiet bleed/Pressed against my head Because I can take it.’ The poem stretches to enormous lengths to accommodate its weight of sadness and guilt: almost 640 pages, a vast work of graphomania. ‘I’m afraid of this poem it won’t let go of me,’ Notley writes, and the book does roll on indefinitely, sputtering and restarting, resisting its own end. Negotiating this ‘meandering epic’ requires physical and mental commitment: this is poetry as durational experience.
My own reading went through phases. I embarked as a willing companion to the epic voice, which promises to ‘interpret for everyone dead or alive and make the words radiate/The story so thick with breaking up layers/That you have to be in it neweyed feeling your way’. Occasionally, I became bored or frustrated, but the book slowly taught me how to read it, like a sutra, whose repetitions induce a different form of consciousness. ‘Your thought has changed,’ Alice insists, and she’s right.
Speak Angel tries to find a musical form that keeps pace with the thinking of the dead, whose ‘thoughts flash Syntax of/The instantaneous’. Unpunctuated lulls alternate with sonnetesque forms. Lines break down into stuttered fragments, words are spliced and recombined. Everything vibrates together, and ‘there are no pieces in mind’ or separation of consciousness from others or from the whole. The form and ‘unpiecemeal idiom’ of the poem resemble the universe’s ‘oneness of plasticity’: both poem and cosmos are ‘a sloppy mess violent and weepy/Meteoric tears fall nothing coheres sensibly.’
For Notley, in the face of personal disaster or global catastrophe, ‘you must always be prepared to create the world again.’ In an essay on ‘Women and Poetry’, published in 1991, she wonders:
What is it like at the beginning of the world? … The world is late and ugly. But we pretend anyway that we are the first ones, we open our mouths for the first time (there never was such a time), we speak with the first voice ever (there never was such a voice) – what do we say? Why must we have a poetry? And who are we? We see now that we are the world and the world is poetry, that words are our poetry, while other pieces of the world have other poetries – birds have their songs but also plants have their forms and patternings and the sky has its own look and process: poetry is the surface and texture and play of being, including the light that springs up in things from their depths. Then what is a poem? The poems are everywhere, we walk among them – an infinitude of them occupying the same boundaryless space.
Notley is still ‘trying to find out what really happened at the beginning’. ‘I don’t accept any of the stories I know,’ she writes. ‘I’m looking for my own, true version. And I’m looking for the perfect singing of it, the exact and perfect rendering.’ Her 48th collection, Being Reflected Upon, is due next spring.
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